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It’s no secret that the NHL Western Conference is far better than the Eastern Conference. Just look at the past three Stanley Cup Champions.
Now, it’s the Central Division that is dominating the West, and the league as a whole for that matter.
This offseason, almost every team in the Central bulked up big-time. There is no really bad team in the Central. Sure, the Winnipeg Jets have been mediocre for awhile, but they haven’t been particularly bad. Let’s examine each Central team to see why it will be so tough to win in the West this year.
This is the youngest and fastest team in the NHL. Head Coach Patrick Roy has rejuvenated this franchise, along with his young superstar Nathan Mackinnon. Despite losing Paul Stastny to division rival St. Louis, the Avalanche still have a wealth of offensive talent. Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene can fill the void left by Stastny. Ryan O’Reilly’s contract situation is complex, but even if they trade O’Reilly, they’ll still perform well. This is one of the up-and-coming teams in the league. Watch out.
There is not much to say about this team other than that they are hands down the best team in the NHL. They just locked down Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane for the next eight years. These two superstars have lit it up over the past few years, bringing two Stanley Cups to the Windy City. One thing that the Hawks lacked was a second-line center. They found one this offseason in Brad Richards. The former Ranger is primed to be a performer for Chicago this year. Could they re-capture the Stanley Cup and cement their status as a “dynasty?”
The Stars probably improved the most this offseason. As free agency began, they made a bold move by acquiring Jason Spezza in a trade with the Ottawa Senators. This team is overflowing with offensive talent. Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza will all be playing on the same team. That is a terrifying thought. The Stars barely made the playoffs last year, giving the Ducks a run for their money in the first round. They’ll certainly do better this year.
The Wild revamped their franchise when they signed Ryan Suter and Zach Parise back in 2012. Now, they’ve picked up an additional offensive stud. Thomas Vanek made good on his intentions when he signed with Minnesota earlier in July. The Wild have consistently made the playoffs for the past few seasons, but have had limited success. They managed to get past an inexperienced Avalanche squad in the first round last year. Can they make a run for the Finals this year?
The Predators were dormant on July 1, but have been very active since. They did not get their one prized free agent, but they got a number of players to support newly-acquired winger James Neal, who was brought over from Pittsburgh on draft day. Nashville signed Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro, and Derek Roy, as well as Anton Volchenkov on defense. All of those players were brought in on one-year deals. General manager David Poile made short-term investments on risky players. If they don’t pay off, they are gone next year. But, Poile may have struck gold.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues made the biggest splash in the NHL when they signed former Avalanche Paul Stastny. He is an offensive juggernaut that will provide a great offensive spark to a team that already produces plenty of offense. Olympic hero T.J. Oshie, along with David Backes, returned to lead the Blues back to the Playoffs. Their biggest issue is goaltending. St. Louis acquired acquired Ryan Miller from Buffalo at the deadline, but he ended up bolting for Vancouver in July. Unless they can secure solid goaltending, this team will continue to strike out in the Playoffs.
This is the lone exception. Winnipeg did nothing to improve their already-mediocre squad. They have a stud that is unhappy with his situation in Evander Kane (he’ll probably get traded this year). They have a decent goaltender in Ondrej Pavelec and have a lot of talented players. But, the same mediocre team that didn’t produce in Atlanta is not producing in Winnipeg. They did nothing to improve their team and will probably fall behind in the super-competitive Central Division.
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